The Important Role of Set Designers in the Movie Industry

set design in moviesImagine your favorite movie or TV show for a second – what is the visual you conjure up?

Whether it’s Seinfeld, Game of Thrones or Wonder Woman, the set that actors perform around plays as much of a role as they do. The environment created by scenic designers helps set the tone, the era and the overall vibe of each scene.

Without the proper backdrop, the story is incomplete.

To become a set designer takes proper education and experience, often a bachelor’s or master’s degree of fine arts is a baseline requirement. But if this is your field of interest, the career upside is very high.

What is Set Design?

If there is no background or some stage setup in performance, then the story becomes harder to believe, and there is nothing to bring to added feel or air to the production.

Think Dunkirk without the battlegrounds and burning buildings. Not quite the same, right?

Even the smallest detail in a scenic design can contribute to the imagination of the audience whether it is the eye picking it up or the unconscious mind.

What Does a Set Designer Do?

Production designers (set designer) help create the atmosphere in a movie or play by setting up the scene. They don’t deal with actors or costumes, but they deal with everything else.

The backdrop, the props, the painting, the flooring – every visual after removing the actors, is under the purview of set designers.

When the set for the theater is designed, then there is less space to work with and no open air. This might set some limitations to the scene designers creativity. The theater industry caters to a live audience, portability and details are important considerations when it comes to theater scenography.

The only thing that might stand in the way of a film production designer is the budget. The sky is the limit, and they can build intricate sets to help sell their story.

From Blank Set to Robust Scene

A set designer starts with nothing, a blank slate. From that blank environment, their creative process determines their next creative steps. It all starts with the script.

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The Script is Your Playbook

The script defines the scope of the set. Is this project set in current times or a past era? Is it fantasy, or real-life? Is it an inspirational or a dark theme?

All of these starting points are determined by the script and will influence the final product.


The production designer doesn’t work in a silo, making isolated decisions about the direction of the film. Instead, they are in constant contact with the director and work in a collaborative environment to create the ultimate vision.

Lighting technicians, wardrobe designers, carpenters, prop masters and many others on set collaborate with the set designers to finalize each project. Being open to new ideas and flexible with your vision is a necessary quality to have a set designer.

In the end, a set design that aligns with a directors vision is all you can hope for.


To be accurate in their depiction of different periods in time, a set designer must conduct historical research.

If a scene in a movie is set in a house from the 80s for example, the production designer would research the interior and exterior of a house in the 80s and truly understand and appreciate the unique features of that era.

If a production designer doesn’t take this step, anyone who grew up in or is familiar with that era will notice the inaccuracies and take the film less seriously.


Once the set designer has gathered enough research and information from the other crew members, he will place his vision on paper.

I always think of the Oscars when they give out the awards for set design, they show the original sketch first, and then show how it was transformed into reality.

Those moments are a constant reminder that it all starts with pencil and paper, not hammer and nail.

The budget needs to be kept in mind during this process. Don’t design higher than you can afford.

Some sets will be easy to create, where only one room and some props are needed, and others might ask for a whole construction to take place.

Scenes that take place in nature can also be quite easy to set up if the season is right.

When the director approves of the sketches, then the build begins.

Production design is a crucial part of any movie, TV show or theater performance, showing off the creativity of the crew and the vision of the production. The crew involved in the design and implementation of the set are often the largest department in the film crew.

If you are creative, innovative and not afraid to work under the pressure of demanding deadlines, then a career in set design  might just be for you.

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The Important Role of Set Designers in the Movie Industry
Want to become a set designer? If you are a creative person with an eye for setting the mood visually
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